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The divide in Chicago

May 29, 2012


IF there was any hope of Pakistan’s fractured relations with the US getting back on track soon, it came crashing down in Chicago.

A further blow came with the conviction on treason charges of Dr Shakeel Afridi, a CIA operative who helped in the US mission to kill Osama bin Laden. His trial and sentencing for 33 years in jail under Pakistani tribal laws has got angry US lawmakers to propose a cut in aid to Pakistan. The timing of the controversial verdict by an assistant political agent could not have come at a worse time.

A series of events over the last couple of weeks have now pushed US-Pakistan relations into a freefall with the dangerous consequence of turning the erstwhile allies into adversaries. There have been many ups and downs in the last more than six decades of a rocky relationship between the two countries, but it had never gotten this bad.

While there have been many sources of tension building up for a long time, the situation has also lot to do with the way the leadership of both countries has handled these critical bilateral relations — superpower arrogance on the one side and a complete disarray and the absence of any policy direction on the other.

This was glaringly demonstrated during the Chicago Nato summit meeting. Obama’s impertinent dealings with President Zardari and deliberate omission of Pakistan from the list of countries he thanked for support in Afghanistan was a reflection of power haughtiness.

A last-minute invitation may have won Pakistan a seat at the Nato summit to discuss the Afghan endgame, but its participation in the forum of some 61 nations and organisations was clouded by the stalemate over the reopening of the Nato supply line and other unresolved issues with the US.

A handshake and brief exchange of words at the start of the session on Afghanistan was the only direct interaction between the Pakistani and US presidents. “We just talked very briefly while walking into the summit,” Obama later said, indicating an unmistakable snub. This public show of annoyance and embarrassment piled on the Pakistani leader during a crucial summit meeting was unprecedented. It seemed a deliberate move to mount pressure on Islamabad as it negotiates new terms of engagement with Washington.

This arm-twisting has also turned a fragile process of resetting a relationship between the two countries into a debacle. An increasingly aggressive position taken by Washington has made it much harder to revive already dysfunctional relations.

The Obama administration has made public humiliation a policy, especially while dealing with Pakistan, forgetting that there could be a strong reaction to it. This approach is also one of the reasons for the rise of anti-Americanism in the country.

Meanwhile, the Pakistani government was equally responsible for getting itself into this humiliating situation. A major question is whether the president should have gone to Chicago on three days’ notice with some key issues like the reopening of the Nato supply route remaining unresolved.

Although, Pakistani officials revelled over an ‘unconditional invitation’ to the meeting, it was not to be.

There was an expectation that Pakistani would at least allow the goods stuck at the Karachi port to go through while the new transit terms were being negotiated.

Either the Pakistani officials were completely oblivious of a hostile mood in Washington because of the stalemate in the reopening of the ground lines of communication or they had simply ignored it in the desperation to be invited.

It was a huge miscalculation. President Zardari got a rude shock when he was cold-shouldered by Obama. He certainly had not expected this treatment when he left for Chicago. It was apparent that the Pakistani officials came to Chicago without any clear policy strategy. In the meeting with Hillary Clinton, the president was completely incoherent and talked only rhetoric without much substance.

According to one American official, the Pakistanis were not able to place any consolidated proposal on the table and there was no clarity on how they wanted to shape the new relationship with Washington.

It may not be entirely true, but one would not be surprised if this indeed happened. It is almost six weeks since parliament approved guidelines for the resetting of ties with the US, but there is no substantive policy framework in place as yet.

The negotiations with the US seem to be stuck on the haggling on transit fees for the Nato supply trucks. Instead of taking a wider strategic view of the relationship, we are only talking about money, earning the reputation of a rent-a-service country. There seems to be no reason why the government cannot reopen the ground lines of communication after parliament’s approval.

Despite the tension, the two countries share many interests particularly bringing an end to the 11-year-old war in Afghanistan. Pakistan has a critical role in the Afghan endgame and a complete rupture between the two countries could be disastrous for regional stability and Pakistan’s own security.

The Chicago conference also endorsed an Afghan war exit strategy and a plan to transfer security responsibility to Afghanistan’s own security forces by 2014.

But it has left many questions unanswered about a negotiated political settlement with the Taliban insurgents which is crucial for a peaceful transition. There was not even a mention of a regional approach guaranteeing the neutral sovereignty of Afghanistan.

The restoration of ties between the US and Pakistan is critical for a negotiated political settlement as well as a regional solution to the Afghan conflict. The heightening tension between the two countries can only give impetus to radicalisation.

The writer is a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre, Washington D.C.